Shotokan Karate History

Shotokan Karate training at the Hombu Dojo

Shotokan Karate is a martial art developed by Gichin Funakoshi at the beginning of the 20th century. Funakoshi Sensei was born in Okinawa and is widely credit with popularizing the art of “Karate Do” to the world and is considered the father of Modern Karate.

Origin of Karate

History of Karate can be track back almost up to 1400 and Daruma – the founder of Zen Buddhism, who introduced Buddhism to China. Daruma incorporated spiritual and physical in to teaching methods that were to demanding for his disciples who often dropped to exhaustion. Later on, he decided to incorporate a more progressive training system. Records about his system can be found in Ekkin-Kyu book, which is considered to be the first book of Karate.

Both Daruma physical and philosophical principles were taught at a Shaolin temple from northern China.

Okinawan Karate

Okinawa is the main island of the Ryukyu Kingdom, and since ancient times it has been in contact with both China and Japan. It was a trading post and merchants from both Japan and China use to come there for trade. Being a point between two cultures Okinawan people adopt what they thought is best from both cultures. As a result, Chinese Kempo (often called as Tode by Okinawan people), blended with the martial arts already existing on the island known as Okinawan-Te – Okinawan hand.

As a result, an early style of what we know today as Karate was from. Three major styles where stand out: Shuri-te, Naha-te and Tomari-te.

Naha-te – has its origins in the tough, intern style practiced in southern China. Movements have a small amplitude and the weapons used in close combat are fists, elbows and kicks to knees or tibia. Stances are static and very solid, and the breathing technique is originated in the Chinese style Qi gong.
Tomari-te – named just like the city, Tomari-te empathize execution speed, locks and throws.
Shuri-te – is a supple, external style originated from Northern China. Is characterized by long movements, kicks and jumps.

Some of the most well-known masters are: Itosu Anko, Yasutsune Azato, Matsumura Kosaku and Higaona Kanryo.

Shotokan Karate

Shotokan Karate has origins in Shuri-te and was developed by Gichin Funakoshi, who was a student of both Itosu Sensei and Azato Sensei.

Shotokan Karate is considered a Japanese style of Karate, although a major part was developed while Funakoshi Sensei was still in Okinawa prior to moving to Japan.

Shotokan Karate reach Japan for the first time after Funakoshi Sensei demonstrated his art in Kyoto at the Budokan arena in 1906. He returned again in 1922 and after a demonstration in front of the king he is asked to stay. The art soon caught on in Japan, and Funakoshi Sensei traveled throughout the country giving lessons and demonstrations.

To better adapt it to Japanese culture Sensei Funakoshi looked in to Kendo and to the era of samurai and transformed his art in to a way – “Do”. He also changed the way the name was written which previously meant Chinese hand to what we know today as Karate (Empty hand), to better fit the Japanese lifestyle and culture. Thus, Karate had become not only a Japanese martial art, but also a way – The Way of Empty Hand.

Interesting is that Funakoshi Sensei never named his style Shotokan, and insisted on just calling it Karate. Is was his students that named it Shotokan and it actually has an interesting story.

Shotokan was the name of the first official Dojo built by Gichin Funakoshi, in 1936 at Mejiro, and destroyed in 1945 as a result of an allied bombing. Shoto, meaning “pine-waves” (the movement of pine needles when the wind blows through them), was Funakoshi’s pen-name, which he used in his poetic and philosophical writings and messages to his students. The Japanese Kan means “house” or “hall”. In honour of their Sensei, Funakoshi’s students created a sign reading Shōtō-Kan, which they placed above the entrance of the hall where Funakoshi taught.

Actually Sensei Funakoshi insisted many times that Shotokan Karate should not be name a style. He though that every style is just a small part in was Karate really is.

In order to better instruct and organize training Funakoshi Sensei adopted both the uniform and the belt system from Jigaro’s Kano Judo. Actualy it was Funakoshi Senei who first adopted the dogi and belt system from Judo. Later on other styles of Karate, including Okinawan ones decided to make the change.

In Shotokan Karate the belt system is composed from 10 Kyu 10 Dan Ranks. Originally, the belt system had just 3 colors (white, brown and black) and 8 Kyu ranks. Later, after Nakayama Sensei set up the JKA and systematize the training program the 9th Kyu was added up. However, in 2014 JKA restructured the grading syllabus and decided to ad one more rank to the belt system.

Shootkan Karate is characterized by long and deep stances and fast linear movement and is regarded as a dynamic martial art that develops anaerobic, powerful techniques as well as speed. Initially strength and power are demonstrated instead of slower, more flowing motions. Like all styles of Karate, Shotokan is divided in Kihon, Kata and Kumite.


Kihon is a Japanese term meaning “basics” or “fundamentals.” The term is used to refer to the basic techniques that are taught and practiced as the foundation of most Japanese martial arts

The practice and mastery of Kihon is essential to all advanced training, and includes the practice of correct body form and breathing, while practicing basics such as stances, punches, kicks, blocks, and thrusts, but it also includes basic representative Kata

Kihon is not only practicing of techniques, it is also helps the Karateka to achive the correct spirit and attitude at all times.

Kihon techniques tend to be practiced often, in many cases during each practice session. They are considered fundamental to mastery and improvement of all movements of greater complexity.


Kata is often described as a set sequence of karate moves organised into a pre-arranged fight against imaginary opponents. The kata consists of kicks, punches, sweeps, strikes and blocks. Body movement in various kata includes stepping, twisting, turning, dropping to the ground, and jumping. In Shotokan, kata is a performance or a demonstration, with every technique potentially a killing blow (ikken hisatsu)—while paying particular attention to form and rhythm.

Shotokan Karate has 26 Katas on is list. Initially there were 27, but due it’s similarities with Jion and Jitte, Jiin was remove from the syllabus.

More about this subject can be found here.


Kumite literally translated means “grappling hands” and is one of the three main sections of karate training, along with Kata and Kihon. Kumite is the part of karate in which a person trains against an adversary, using the techniques learned from the kihon and kata.

Types of Kumite:

Gohon Kumite – 5 spet sparing.
Kihon Ippon Kumite – 1 step sparing.
Kihon Ippon Kumite Kiri Ashi – 1 step sparing with in which the attacker becoms te defender.
Jiyu Ippon Kumite – Similar to Kihon Ippon Kumite with the only difference that techniques are executed from Kamae while moving.
Jiyu Kumite – free sparing.


JKA is the main authority in the world for Shotokan Karate. It was set up by Sensei Masatoshi Nakayama with Funkoshi Sensei being the head of the organization until his death.

Also, under JKA authority the first ever JKA All Japan Karate Championship was held at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in October 1957.

Nowadays JKA is largest and most prestigious organization in the world with over 100 countries affiliated. More importantly, the JKA is the only legal karate entity officially approved by the Japanese government as an association of members for the promotion and preservation of the strip of Karate based on ancient Japanese tradidion Bushido (way of the samurai).


The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory nor defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants
– Gichin Funakoshi Sensei

I used this quote before but what could better represent the philosophy of Shotokan better then this wonderful saying from Funakoshi Sensei.

But Shotokan philosophy has much deeper roots:

Gichin Funakoshi laid out the Twenty Precepts of Karate, (Niju kun) which form the foundations of the art, before Nakayama Sensei established the JKA. Within these twenty principles, based heavily on Bushido and Zen, lies the philosophy of Shotokan. The principles allude to notions of humility, respect, compassion, patience, and both an inward and outward calmness. It was Funakoshi’s belief that through karate practice and observation of these 20 principles, the karateka would improve their person.

The Dojo kun lists five philosophical rules for training in the dojo; seek perfection of character, be faithful, endeavor to excel, respect others, refrain from violent behavior. These rules are called the Five Maxims of Karate. The Dojo kun is usually posted on a wall in the Dojo, and some Shotokan clubs recite the Dojo kun at the beginning and/or end of each class to provide motivation and a context for further training.

People who played major part in development of Shotokan Karate

Yashitaka (Gigo) Funakoshi

The third son of Funakoshi Sensei, Gigo is considered to be the creator of many new techniques and training methods found in Shotokan Karate. Unlike his father who emphasize Kata, Gigo concentrated more on the Kumite aspect of Karate. Gohon kumite, Kihon Ippon kumite, Jiyu Ippon Kumite, Jiyu Kumite and Ten No Kata are credited to Funakoshi’s Son. He is also responsible for the long and deep stances along with many new leg techniques like: Mawashi Geri, Yoko Geri Kekomi, Yoko Geri Keage, Fumikomi and Ushiro Geri. All this changes immediately separated Shotokan from Okinawan karate.

Masatoshi Nakayama

Known as Funakoshi’s right hand, Nakayama Sensei is the founder of the JKA. He is know for systematizing training after the WW II along with developing new training methods but also for seting up the faimos JKA Instrcutor Course.

Taiji Kase

He is accredited with the creation of Uramawashi Geri, however there is no prof regarding this, with many people considering that Yoshitaka Funakoshi is also the inventor of Uramawashi Geri.

Today, Shotokan Karate is practiced by millions of people right across the world and although the lines are often blurred between trurh and exagerations or legends, the contribution made by the old Okinawan masters and those that followed them should not be forgotten.

In to closing lines of this article I will like to mention that Funakoshi Sensei always said that karate was an unfinished art and will it would continue to grow and change.


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